After 17 years as the vicar of England’s largest Anglican church, Nicky Gumbel retired on Sunday. Here is his final message to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB)
I want to speak from a passage in Acts 20, where Paul talks to the church in Ephesus. He spent a long time there. He loved the church and they become his friends. And it was his farewell address to the church.
We’ve been here 46 years, since 1976. And we love all of you.
I believe the best is yet to come - for you, for the church, for all of us. For three reasons. The first reason is because of God’s power.
The apostle Paul says to the church he loved: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock, which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, be shepherds of the Church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
Holy Spirit, God, Jesus are all in the same verse. The whole Trinity is involved.
He says in verse 32 to “commit you to God, and to the word of his grace.” One translation of grace could be unconditional love. God loves you unconditionally, wholeheartedly, continually.
It’s not our church
This is not our church. This is God’s church. And it’s been a succession from John Collins, who retired as vicar here in 1985. And 37 years later, he’s still going strong. So there’s hope for all of us! He’s 97, and very godly.
He handed over to Sandy Miller, who is still going strong, he’s 82. It’s good to be a vicar of HTB. They live a long time! One lived to 104, I think.
And now Archie Coates. But actually, it’s none of our church. It’s God’s church. And that’s how Paul describes it here: “the church of God.”
We’ve had such fun in the last 17 years. One time, we did conferences in the US. In a break between conferences, someone lent us a house, where we got a bit of a holiday. The condition of lending us this house was that in the garage, there was an old sports car, but it had to be driven. Otherwise when they got back, it wouldn’t work. So I drove this sports car. I’ve never driven a sports car before or since, but I loved driving that sports car. We had such fun. But I never thought it was my own.
Being vicar of HTB is the best job in the world. It’s much better than being Prime Minister!
And that’s what I feel about Alpha.
Alpha doesn’t belong to me. Lots of people were involved before, lots of people will be involved afterwards. Same with HTB. It’s a huge privilege to drive it. But it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God.
Jesus died for you
It’s bought by the blood of Jesus. That’s to say, God came in the person of Jesus, and he died. If you’ve never heard this before I would be remiss not to give anyone here an opportunity today to give their lives to Jesus. Because Jesus died for you. This church was bought with his own blood. Jesus died on a cross for you. He was raised to life. And he’s here now and his last words, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel were: “I will be with you always.”
Jesus died for you. None of the previous vicars died for you. Your vicars are not dying for you. But Jesus died for you.
What has happened in this church has been the result of the work of the Spirit. We’ve seen the outpouring of the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit’s power is unlimited.
The first reason I believe that the best is yet to come for this church is because of the unconditional power of God, the unconditional love of God, the presence of Jesus always, and the power of the Holy Spirit, who will be with you.
The best church
The second reason is because of God’s people. You are the reason for hope.
We’ve travelled all over the world, Pippa and I. There’s some amazing churches. But we always say you’re the best. We just love all of you. We are so grateful. And what I want to say to you all is thank you. Thank you for all that you’ve done. Not just in the last 17 years, but for some of you it’s longer. For 36 years on the staff, 46 years involved in the leadership, Pippa and I are just so grateful to all of you for what you have done. You are the most amazing, wonderful congregation.
Don’t just be a consumer, be a contributor
I’m so looking forward to Focus because next weekend. We will have the official handover to Archie and Sam, and it’s going to be amazing. All the churches, all the church plants coming together, all the different congregations coming together. There’ll be possibly around 10,000 of us there. And we will have the most amazing time of celebration.
The future is yours
What happens in the future is up to you. Because you’re God’s people. And Paul talks about you being like the overseers. You’re all leaders, every one of you here.
Of course, it’s up to Archie and Sam. But essentially it’s up to you. So please don’t say, “we’ll just watch and see how they get on. And then we’ll decide.” No, what does Paul say as he leaves the Ephesian church? He says, “In everything I showed you by this kind of hard work, we must help the weak, remembering the words that Lord Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
So he says to them, first of all, work hard. This is your responsibility. Don’t be a consumer, be a contributor. And we’ve asked Archie and Sam, “What would you like us to do?” And I’ll tell you in a moment, what he’s asked us to do. But I’d love to think that all of you will say to Archie and Sam, “What would you like me to do? How can we contribute? How can we help?” Don’t just be a consumer, be a contributor.
Then he says, “help the weak”. I’m just so thrilled generally that Archie and Sam are coming here. But one of the things that fills me with joy and excitement is their passion for the weak, for the homeless, for the prisoners, for the refugees. Sam has actually gone into Ukraine in the last few weeks to deliver clothes and food. She cares passionately about the poor, and the weak, and the marginalised. They care passionately about racial justice, they care passionately about all these issues. And that’s high on God’s agenda.
We’re in a difficult economic situation. I know giving is hard for many people. But I’ve always encouraged you to give, and every time I’ve spoken here about giving, I’ve always said to you the words of Jesus. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And I’ve always said to you, the main reason I want you to give is so that you will be blessed. But I know some of you thought, “Oh, yeah, he wants our money. The church needs our money. That’s why he’s saying that.” Well, I’m off. So that can’t be my motive anymore! I’m telling you, I want you to be blessed. Try it.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if when Archie and Sam arrive here, they get hundreds of people saying, “I’m going to up my direct debit to the church” or “I’ve never given to the church before, but I’m going to start giving five pounds a month to the church by direct debit. I’m not just going to be a consumer, I’m going to be a contributor.”
The second reason I believe the best is yet to come is that he’s raised up all of you for such a time as this. You are God’s people, and it’s you who are going to make sure that the best is yet to come.
The third reason is God’s purpose.
In verse 24 [of Acts 20], Paul says, “My only aim is to finish the race and complete the task. The Lord Jesus has given me the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
Everyone is given a task. All of you have a purpose in your lives.
Paul describes it as a service. We’re all called to serve. He calls himself a deacon, and that means a servant. All of you are called to be servants. Our purpose in life is to serve.
Archie and Sam have felt called here. Everyone who was involved in the decision - whether it was the church wardens or the patrons or the bishop - were unanimous that God was calling them.
I sat in one of our big leaders meetings, and it was the first time that Archie had led, in anticipation of what he’s going to do. And as he stood at the front talking, I felt something that I used to feel when Sandy was the vicar here: total peace.
I have a complete sense of peace in handing over to Archie and Sam. I know they will be utterly brilliant in what they do.
Of course, things will change. And I want to encourage you to embrace change.
Changing my mind
I had hoped that Sandy would stay forever. I absolutely loved working for Sandy. I didn’t want him to leave. I begged him not to leave.
I managed to persuade him for three years not to leave, and eventually he said, “Whether you take over or not, I’m off.”
We had to decide whether we were willing to be considered to take over. We went on holiday. Our second son [Jonny] was 22. I was 49. And I’ll never forget this walk I went on with him. He said, “What are your doubts about taking it on?” And I said, “Well, the first one is age. Although I’m 49, in many ways, I feel too young. I look at Sandy and his wisdom and his experience, and I feel too young. But also, I look at the average age of the congregation - 27 year olds coming on Alpha, and I feel too old. So I feel both too young and too old.” He said, “Well, does that suggest you might be the right age?”
If you want to keep something the same, you have to keep changing.
And I said “Secondly, I don’t feel ready to take over.” And he said “Remember in the Narnia book, when Aslan asked Prince Caspian ‘Do you feel ready to rule the kingdom of Narnia?’ Prince Caspian said ‘No, I don’t feel ready.’ And he replied, ‘If you said you were ready, you wouldn’t have been ready. It’s only because you don’t feel ready that you are ready.’”
So I said, “But Jonny, the other thing is change. If I don’t change things, will there be no progress. But if I do change things, it looks like an implied criticism of Sandy. And I would never want to do anything that looked like a criticism of what Sandy had done.” And Jonny said, “Well, GK Chesterton said, ‘in order to stay the same, you have to change.’ He said, ”HTB needs to say the same. But in order to do that, it has to change. Think about it. If you have a room, or a flat or house, and you never decorate it, you never change it, it won’t stay the same, it will deteriorate. If you want to keep something the same, you have to keep changing. And if this church is to stay the same, the DNA of HTB has to say the same, it will have to change. So embrace change.”
My new job
Archie has asked us to visit the church plants, to encourage all the plants that have come out of here. I think there are 127 churches, many of whom we’ve never visited. So we’ll be working for Archie and Sam. We’re going to start that in September.
Also he’s asked us to continue to head up Alpha, under his leadership.
I was not a Christian. I was an atheist. I encountered Jesus in 1974. And it radically changed my life. And all that time, I’ve been looking for ways to communicate that. As Paul says, “My only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.”
Jesus has given each of us a task, the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. That’s what I’ve been trying to do since 1974. And I’ve never found a better way of doing that than Alpha. If we find a better way than Alpha, we’ll drop Alpha and do the better way. But right now we’ve done 96 Alpha courses in a row. And we still haven’t found a better way.
Our last Alpha group ended on Wednesday. It was just amazing to hear their stories:
Kay was a total atheist. Last year, his mother died. And he was feeling very low. This is what he said, “I was really low, I got to the point where I wasn’t happy in life. Didn’t want to be here any longer. I went to my mum’s grave just to say bye to her. I’ll see you soon.”
As he was walking away from the grave, he saw a Barclays debit card, and he picked it up. It belonged to someone he hadn’t seen for 25 years. An old friend called Nana, whose younger brother had also died last year, and who was buried very close to Kay’s mum.
So he contacted Nana on Facebook, and Nana was a Christian. He said, “I’m also coping with grief. What you need is to do Alpha, I’m booking you in for the first two weeks, and I’ll come with you.” He was only going to stay for two weeks. But he loved it. And his life began to change.
Last Sunday was the first time he’d ever been in a church building in his entire life. He said to me at the end of Wednesday night, “would you baptise me at Focus?” So at Focus we’re gonna baptise Kay!
That’s why I keep doing Alpha, because people’s lives get changed by Jesus.
Only 30 million people have done Alpha so far. And you just think, that’s a drop in the ocean. It’s like we’ve done research and development, but now we’ve got to roll it out to the world!
I have committed to this for the next 11 years, till 2033, which is the 2000th anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. The Bible translators are working to get the New Testament in every language, Rick Warren’s working on a Bible, a believer and the body of Christ in every community. We’re trying to play our part by making Alpha available to everyone on the planet.
So the best is yet to come. I’m handing on…by the way, being vicar of HTB is the best job in the world. It’s much better than being Prime Minister!
I believe the best is yet to come for this church, for your life, for all of us. Because God is able to do immeasurably more than anything we ask or even imagine, according to the power that is at work within us. And as we all work together, as we all serve together, I believe the best is yet to come. And we will see the evangelisation of the nation, the revitalisation of the church and the transformation of society in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Read more from Nicky Gumbel in our exclusive interview with him, only in the new issue of Premier Christianity magazine. Subscribe now from £3.95